Consumer Group Protests Stealth Marketing

The consumer advocate group Commercial Alert entered the debate about buzz marketing Tuesday, with a request to the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether stealth campaigns violate rules against deceptive advertising.

"Fraud is fraud, and a harmless-sounding name such as 'buzz marketing' doesn't change that," states the letter to the FTC.

Commercial Alert focused its disapproval on companies that hire actors to pretend to be consumers. "This is all about shills being required to disclose," Executive Director Gary Ruskin told OnlineMediaDaily.

While the organization is mainly concerned with face-to-face campaigns, online initiatives also could prove problematic, Ruskin said. For instance, an online campaign that involves marketers creating a blog that looks like it's written by a consumer might be troubling "because it would be omitting the key fact that it's a product of the marketing department," Ruskin said.

But some say that such a use of undercover marketers online isn't necessarily unlawful. Doug Wood, a lawyer who heads the advertising and marketing practice at Reed Smith, said the FTC only bars misrepresentations that are material and that would mislead a reasonable consumer. On the other hand, "innocent puffery"--or making subjective and vague claims about a product's superiority--is usually okay.

What would cross the line online? One scenario might involve a pharmaceutical company creating a blog supposedly written by a doctor that touts the medical advantages of a particular drug, said Wood.

On the other hand, he said, a blog that just talked about one product tasting better than another might not be deceptive under federal law, even if the blog was written by professional marketers masquerading as consumers.

Andy Sernovitz, CEO of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association, indicated that his organization's ethics code even more strictly prohibits misleading consumers. A phony blog wouldn't pass muster under WOMMA's internal code, he said.

But, he added, even WOMMA's relatively strict ethics code is fuzzy about online campaigns that straddle a line between entertainment and deception. "There's a big list of sticky questions," he said. "One of them is--how do you allow creative freedom in these creative hoaxes and the like?"

For instance, consider this year's McDonald's Lincoln French Fry effort, meant to satirize the auction on eBay of a grilled cheese sandwich that supposedly resembled the Virgin Mary. The McDonald's campaign, which had TV and Web components, involved creating a fake blog by a fictional married couple who discovered a french fry shaped like Abraham Lincoln's profile.

That blog--meant as comedy--potentially falls into a gray ethical area, Sernovitz said. "It's going to take a couple of years to figure this out," he said. But, he added, "if it's obviously entertainment, then there's not a deception issue."

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